On Sunday, September 21st, over 300,000 people rallied in New York City as part of the People’s Climate March. It was the largest mobilization on behalf of the climate in history. The day after, the Flood Wall Street campaign took to the streets of New York to demand financial action on the climate. These efforts are astonishing in their scale and scope, and all the marchers and organizers should be proud to have been part of such an historic moment.
But what happens next? Now that the banners have furled and the streets cleared out, how can the climate movement best use this burst of energy and passion to fuel lasting political change on carbon emissions?
From a social movements perspective, the People’s Climate March and Flood Wall Street created a wave of political opportunity for the climate movement. Movements scholar Sidney Tarrow describes political opportunity as “the types of opportunities people experience, the constraints on their freedom of action, and the threats they perceive to their interests and values.”
Classic movements scholarship suggests that political opportunities can increase when movements begin to grow and spread their message, opening up room for political and social conversations about the issues. This can fuel the growth of the movement and lead to social change. Taking a movements perspective can help us see the opportunities now available to the climate movement.
As I mentioned in my article from September, social movements, particularly those relying on direct action as a tactic for change, can be severely hamstrung in their effectiveness when faced with unsympathetic officials who crack down on protest. This happens most frequently when movements push for drastic change, but also when movements are seen as unpopular.
The flip side, though, is that when movements are seen as powerful and popular, as the climate movement is now, officials can use their discretion in deciding whether to punish activists. The results can be groundbreaking. We saw this principle in action less than two weeks before the Climate March when C. Samuel Sutter, the District Attorney in the much-publicized Climate Trial, dropped the charges against two climate activists accused of blocking a shipment of coal with a lobster boat. Sutter cited the climate crisis and the Climate March specifically when announcing his decision to refuse to prosecute.
With the power of the climate movement on full display this weekend, it’s possible that a window of opportunity has opened up for climate activists to become bolder in their protest tactics. Groups like the Tar Sands Blockade are already mobilizing for direct action. The question now is, how far can they push their advantage?
While big business is traditionally seen as an enemy of the climate and environmental movements, recent news that many large companies are not only incorporating carbon pricing in their business decisions but actively calling for a carbon tax, voluntarily becoming more environmentally friendly and leaving legislative groups like ALEC over their climate change policies is heartening news for climate activists and an opportunity that can’t be passed up.
Tarrow argues that activists challenging the system “are encouraged to take collective action when they have allies who can act as friends in court, as guarantors against repression, or as acceptable negotiators on their behalf.”
Like it or not, in our current political system, money talks. The climate movement has historically had few financial resources of its own and many well-funded opponents. Gaining these powerful allies in the business community could be critical in pushing legislative action. Their business credibility means they’re harder to discredit as radical, anti-capitalist environmentalists, and their financial power means they have the resources to command respect in the halls of Congress.
It is likely that many within the climate movement will never be fully comfortable working with industry. Indeed, environmentalists in general and climate activists have good reason to be skeptical of such a partnership, given the depth and breadth of the changes that need to happen for a truly carbon-neutral economy. And if it turns out, as Naomi Klein proposes, that effectively tackling climate change requires fundamental changes to capitalism, this fragile coalition will rapidly fragment. But as an interim strategy until a broader radical movement can be mobilized, activists can perhaps make common cause with business groups on issues like a carbon tax. Leveraging the power of groups like We Mean Business gives the movement political access they otherwise would not have.
Taking Advantage of Opportunities
So what does it all mean? How can the climate movement best position itself to take advantage of this changing political landscape?
First, climate activists need to stay mobilized. The Climate March was a tremendous show of support for climate policies, but unless a sustained pressure is kept on political and business leaders moving forward, it risks being seen as an isolated event rather than a substantial movement. Climate activists need to dedicate themselves to making noise today, tomorrow, every day until Paris 2015 so that leaders feel they can no longer afford to ignore the climate bloc.
Second, climate activists need to continue to build coalitions, reaching out to every group that can lend its numbers to the action. Labor unions, religious groups and many others were represented in the Climate March, a sign that the issue is gaining traction in a widening number of social circles. This is wonderful news, and every effort should be made to ensure that these ties are strong and long-lasting.
Importantly, this means supporting the causes of our fellow marchers when we can. It’s worth pointing out, as Deirdre Smith does in her excellent piece for 350.org, that many of the same social and economic structures that contribute to climate change are the same ones actively disenfranchising tens of thousands of our fellow citizens. Relationships where only one party is giving don’t last long, and we need this coalition to last.
The climate movement still faces an uphill battle in its fight to prevent catastrophic warming. But now is the time for activists to mobilize to take advantage of the opportunities that are presenting themselves.
Image Courtesy of Mythili Sampathkumar © 2014